Resurrection & New Life:  Pentecost

Meet Rev. Dr. Mark Fowler


Dr. Fowler is a professor at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.  As one of his former students, I can tell you that he is just as much a pastor as teacher and as much a man of deep compassion as he is a mentor and role model.  He is the Murray H. Leiffer Associate Professor of Congregational Leadership and is the Executive Director of the Institute for Transformative Leaders and Communities.  He received his BA from DePauw University, his Master of Divinity from Boston University, and his Doctor of Ministry from Andover Newton Theological School.  Please warmly welcome to my blog, as today’s guest blogger, Mark Fowler!
Pentecost

Today’s Scripture: Acts 2


I have often thought of Pentecost and the activity of the Holy Spirit as wind and fire, of the birth of the church with thousands of folks swept up in the witness of Peter (although I have been amazed that the church does not utilize the scripture from Joel that Peter used in this “birth” sermon of the church, hmmm!)  It is a dynamic and dramatic experience that is reported at Pentecost.

In an age when we are drawn to the “big show”, the dramatic increase in numbers, the pyrotechnic displays and the moment-by-moment sensory overload so central to our consumer culture, the Pentecost story could be easily exemplified as a reasonable expectation.  Shouldn’t the people of God, using God’s gift of the Holy Spirit, use the craft and expect the results of Pentecost to draw the world?
 

In a time when the traditional church is in traumatic dislocation, loss of privilege, bereft of its traditional social influence and seemingly in disarray.  At the recent United Methodist General Conference, proposals for changing ecclesiastical structures are left on the table, traditional covenants of ministry are tossed aside for a more effective way in which “only the temporally effective pastors are allowed to stay on the bus” (without a similar capacity for assessment being placed on the unassailable Episcopal office) and a casual vote declares a rather sizable number of delegates have put a restraint on the prevenient nature of the grace of God, a distinctive principal of the Methodist movement and a hallmark of its proclamation and effective evangelism. And, we all will move forward to try to capture lightening and wind in a bottle as an assurance of the future survival of the denominations.  

For me this year, Pentecost has been preceded by a delightful bit of weather in Chicago.  It has drawn me to the lakeside to sit and relax, reflect on the future.  I have felt close to the experience of the disciples prior to the amazing events on Pentecost that gave birth to the church, a ten day retreat in the upper room.  My mind flew to John Wesley prior to the Aldersgate Street experience that renovated his soul and was the source of the regeneration of the church through the birth of the Methodist movement.  It came to clear memory that in a difficult turning point in my own ministry, that it was preceded by a time of wilderness in the desert southwest where I experienced the disorienting reality of my own life in the vast and unfamiliar landmarked desert.  


In this anxious time for the church, we cannot fancy ourselves capable of doing the work of the Holy Spirit in the regeneration of the church.  Nor do we exactly know what form it will take or what methods of evangelism and discipleship will be most effective to be embraced in the mission dei  toward the fulfillment of God’s purposes for the creation and the beloved.  We must discipline ourselves to be open to the Holy Spirit’s presence and work among us and in the creation.  We must Sabbath intently and yearn for God and trusting the promise that “in these last days, God will pour out the Spirit on all flesh…and the daughters and sons will prophesy and the old will dream.”  And, the dreams and visions will be of a world re-born and the loving purpose of creation will be fulfilled in our experience!

Resurrection & New Life: I’ve Seen It Too Many Times Not To Believe!

Meet Rev. Dr. Victor K. Long


Rev. Victor K. Long is the pastor at First United Methodist Church of Mount Vernon. He is an Elder of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference and previously served an appointment in Marion, IL where we worked together at First United Methodist Church.

He received a Bachelor of Business Administration from McKendree University, a Master of Divinity from Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, and Doctor of Ministry from Graduate Theological Foundation.


Victor is married to Jennifer, and together they have four children: Ashley, Autumn, Lauren, and Carson.

Victor is a close personal friend and one of the important mentors of my life and ministry.  I hope you will welcome him to my blog today!

…I’ve seen it too many times not to believe in it!

Today’s Scripture: Romans 8:28


    My dad died from a brain tumor at age 55 in 1996 … just six days before my daughter [our first child and my parents’ first grandchild] was born.


    The afternoon after my father died, I was listening to the radio, reflecting upon the tragedy that was overwhelming my family, and a contemporary Christian song came on the radio, the chorus of which said, “Life is hard, God is good.”  In that moment, I felt God’s presence and the assurance that I/we would make it through this dark and difficult episode.
 

    A few days later, the birth of my daughter, Autumn, provided a much-need burst of joy in the midst of our grieving for my father.  Our joy, however, was quickly displaced by anxiety and fear when we learned that our newborn child had a life-threatening infection, requiring major surgery at three weeks of age.
 

    On the Sunday following her surgery, I sat in her hospital room, rocking her and watching a televised worship service.  That morning, the guest vocalist sang a song which had quickly become familiar to me … “Life is hard, God is good.”
 

    Church historian Diana Butler Bass tells of overhearing an exchange between a bishop whom she describes as an “octogenarian liberal lion” and a parishioner who was interrogating his beliefs.
 

    “Bishop,” the person asked, “Do you believe in the resurrection?”  Listening in, Butler Bass says, “Frankly, I could not wait to hear the answer — like most of his generation, there was no way that Bishop Corrigan believed in a literal resurrection.”
 

    The old bishop looked at the questioner and said firmly, without pause, “Yes. I believe in the resurrection. I’ve seen it too many times not to.”
 

    I have to agree.  I’ve witnessed resurrection too many times not to believe in it.  I’ve seen dead souls awakened to new life through the touch of God’s love.  I’ve seen grief transformed into hope, tragedy turned into victory, despair changed into joy.
 

    When “life is hard,” I remember that the God we encounter in Jesus Christ is a great and gracious God whose love is stronger than death, whose goodness overwhelms hatred, whose forgiveness is greater than sin or guilt — a God who can ultimately make “all things work together for good” [Romans 8:28].
 

    Resurrection … I’ve seen it too many times not to believe in it!
 

–  Victor Long

Title image found at:  http://josephpatterson.wordpress.com/2011/04/26/the-resurrection-of-christ-our-god-and-the-laws-of-physics/

Ministry from the Backyard.

I’m still on medical leave from my pastoral duties…at least officially. Although I preached this morning for a confirmation service at my church, I get to walk away without the worries and responsibilities of being a pastor for the rest of the week.

I came home and relaxed in my recliner and did all the things that a guy should do when he’s recovering from surgery…but, then, when my wife got home I joined her in the backyard. She wanted to write a blog, but also enjoy the day. I couldn’t argue with that. I went out and did the same.

I logged onto facebook, then twitter, and then went over my blog stats and posts. I really did very little, yet I communicated with a number of friends, member of my church family, and people in the community. As I sit in the sun and write blog posts (feeling the wind whip past me and the sun on my arms) I am connecting with other people and building relationships. A pastor who only did this all week would be…well, quite simply, lazy… Yet, shifting some responsibilities to make time for social media is a smart move.

Getting a small laptop or iPad and going to the local coffee shop or a restaurant…or using an iphone to update your status (or check-in) from a community event or location will enhance and deepen your ministry and your connection to the people who live near you.

It is time for pastors to recognize that making time for social media, not at the end of the week when everything else is done, but throughout their week (as a priority) will help them to do every other element of their ministry in today’s new context!

NOTE:  The photos above were taken with intstagram.  If you are a pastor with an internet-connected smartphone, you need to get the app and start a photostream!  It’s a fun way to share your world with others.

Getting Back To It

I’ve begun to feel much more like myself, but I forget that no one outside of my living room knows that, at least on most days!

Well, as you all know from my other blog posts, I got through the second surgery (which fixed complications from my original brain surgery). All was going well, last I posted about my health. Since then life has been pretty boring, really. I sit in my recliner and test gravity, I pack boxes for our move to Normal, IL, or I am on a walk with my wife.

If the part about me packing boxes is concerning, it shouldn’t be. I pack them and I direct Carrie about where to stack them. It’s a weird position to be in. I go to the grocery store and I have to ask for a bagboy to help me to my car. I’m 32 years old and look as though I’m an able-bodied man…you should see the looks I get from the County Market somedays.

It is really great, though, to be off all the pain medications and driving again!!! It allows me to get out of the house and that doesn’t seem so important until you can’t do it. I know I’ve talked about this is the past (after my first surgery), but getting to drive felt like a huge milestone. I didn’t need to go anywhere, in fact, I didn’t really have anywhere to go…but I could go if I wanted to. That felt great, somehow.

That brings me to today. I got to go to my church today. Not only did I get to go to church, but I was invited to preach the 8:15 am worship service since it was confirmation Sunday and I led that program. I was nervous to try to preach, but I felt good the whole time. I’m back to myself and I know now that I’m capable of getting back to work.

My District Superintendent and the directing pastor at my church decided, when I went into the emergency room with the Spinal fluid leak that it wouldn’t make sense for me to go back to work for just a few weeks. It really could be more disruptive than helpful to be back full time for such a short time, especially when Rev. Ray is finding his groove as a solo pastor… So, I will be on medical leave until the end of June and start back to work as a pastor full-time when I arrive at First United Methodist Church of Normal.

Now, I haven’t left the church and because I’m feeling better and better everyday I’m not just going to be sitting around next month. After talking with Rev. Ray, I’ve decided that the month of June will be a time of visiting in the nursing home and spending time saying farewell.

Title Photo Courtesy of Marci Hunt

Nuts & Bolts

Alright, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about my ideology of communication.  Yes, some of it is dated, but I want to move on.  I want to write a bit about the “nuts and bolts.”  I want to inspect more specifically how we put good communication into practice.

Over the last few months I have started an experiment by accident and I think we can learn something from it.  Let me tell you:

A few months ago I was in an unusual situation.  My church had decided to make major staffing changes, so I knew I was moving.  I went to the doctor and found out I had a brain tumor, and then my senior pastor went on vacation for a month.

When I went in to talk to my District Superintendent (the pastor who supervises my district of churches), she shook her finger at me and told me that I needed to communicate VERY CLEARLY and often with my church.  My job, she reminded me, was to minimize anxiety and keep the church informed.

She was right, but also I didn’t want my wife burdened during (and after) my surgery with lists of people to call and email, nor did I want her to feel inundated with calls when she was going through a lot.  Hmmm.  Well, Facebook, Twitter and my blog turned out to be the solution.  It was perfect because friends, family, church family, and even the people who weren’t yet on facebook could stay connected to my progress without much effort on my wife’s part.  We ended up starting a new blog and by the end of that month we had over 6000 hits.  It was a great success.

It was an accident, but  it worked beautifully.  It wasn’t just information, it wasn’t just what happened, but it was about how I felt.  Perhaps more importantly, it wasn’t just words but also video and pictures.  It turns out that I finally did all the things I’d been expounding on this blog for so long!  I was using social media to build relationships.  In the process of authentically expressing myself, I was sharing my life and faith with a larger audience than I preach to each Sunday.  How cool is that?  It was an accident, but I was actually doing the mission statement of the church… perhaps even more effectively than on Sunday morning.

An Obese American Church

The United Methodist Church has become, like seemingly everything else, an overweight, super-sized monstrosity. It has become both victim and perpetrator of the falsehood that bigger-is-better. The bureaucracy and, even, the local churches have lost connection with a quickly changing America because we are fat and living in the past. Now, I know I will receive criticism for not calling it a ‘global’ church, but the United Methodist agencies physically have their offices in the United States and General Conference, in 2008 and since, has chosen to not take it’s global nature seriously, so how can I? Also, I am located in the United Staes so I can only speak for the portion of the Church I see in action. I cannot speak for the European, African, or Asian Churches, for instance. So I will speak of the US UMC.

In most ‘regions’ of the US United Methodist Church, the largest amount of waste and disconnect in the church is our historical Annual Conference Systems, offices, and staffs, but that is a topic for another day. Today I want to address the challenges facing General Conference which is raging right this moment. For those of you who don’t know, General Conference, in short, is a global legislative conference of the United Methodist Church which sets polity and direction of the church and it’s many boards and agencies.

The most controversial proposals before that body this week (and next) are concerned with restructuring and ‘streamlining’ the church. The words I like to use is that the United Methodist Church must become more nimble if it is to begin responding to a new culture,a new way of life in the World, and being a global church, which is a necessity! Yet, groups, especially agency staff (surprise) and many of the young people of general conference seem to be concerned that there will not be fair representation if we shrink the structure. (I’m sure there are others, again, I can only attest to the tweets, blogs and voices I have seen and heard…)

At first, when a very small board was proposed, that might have been a serious concern, but now that the authors of the “Call To Action” have accepted the need for larger board(s), this is no longer a real concern, if you ask me. The concern is more likely for people who have been serving as board members, like me, or staff members, who fear that there will not be room for them in the new system. We have to put aside these worries.

I chose not to put my name in for a general board or agency during this next quadrennium. I have plenty to do trying to make my local church more vital. I suggest that others, including General Conference delegates do the same. We all need to show a willingness to ‘give up our own seat’ before we can talk authentically about the needs of the church and the good of this church that we all love.

And perhaps it is time to let go of a jurisdictional pool system that has given such limited leadership (and helped certain people hold on to positions for so long), but, again, that is another topic for another blog. Hey, Jurisdictional and Annual Conferences are coming. I have to save some topics for those weeks!



*top image found at:  image found at: http://www.efr.org/workplace-classic/eap/providers

Scary-Different Church

image found at:  http://newvintageleadership.com/

I’m very worried about the United Methodist Church. It has been on a long and slow decline in membership and finances for years. We know that the course we are on is untenable and we know our bureaucracy is oversized and out-dated…and we know that it no longer reflects the needs of our current church.

I don’t know which of the upcoming proposals will be best, but I implore all of those heading to General Conference 2012 to take action this year. If we don’t accept the call-to-action or a similar piece of legislation, we won’t be around much longer.
I hate to say it so strongly. I hate to have to say it at all…but I am afraid for my church. We can’t afford to ignore our problems any longer and the local church can’t afford anything, not any more.

It is time for action. I know the arguments against the call-to-action report. I know that many groups fear a loss of voice. I agree, that is not what we want. Yet, I fear there will be no voices soon enough, if we don’t reduce the size of our church boards. Furthermore, I wonder how effectively we feel the voices “at the table” are heard in our current system. I wonder how effectively our boards are currently operating?

I have thought long and hard about it. I choose to give up my seat. I know that’s not saying much, but I didn’t throw my hat in the ring to be on a board or agency this time around. I’ve served my church the past 8 years and I think I now serve it best by sitting back and letting the church shrink, become more nimble, and allow other voices to be heard. Are others willing to give up their seat for the good of our church? Are we willing to say less in order that the church can do more? Are we willing to step out in faith even though this new reality is scary-different?

Let’s make a new future for this church.

Today’s Scripture: 1 John 1:1-2:2

We will look more closely at just a few of these verses:

2 The life was revealed, and we have seen, and we testify and announce to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us. 3 What we have seen and heard, we also announce it to you so that you can have fellowship with us. Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. 4 We are writing these things so that our joy can be complete.

Think about it for just a moment. It would not have been very difficult to believe in Christ just after the resurrection. Oh, it might have been difficult to believe, i suppose, but it had just happened! I mean, if there was a time when it was easier to believe, that would have been the time, right? If we read the gospel of John we find that Christ has appeared to the disciples. It seems assured that Christ has, indeed, risen from the dead!

But for the next few generations of Christians it must have been increasingly difficult. There were not any gospels for a while and stories were handed down, but Christ wasn’t there to be seen or touched.

The problem that becomes apparent in this scripture is that people were mixing up the message of Jesus Christ and so 1 John attempts to put the message of Christ back into order. “We have seen,” and “we testify…to you.” Those who knew something about the life and death of Jesus are writing these words to ensure future generations of Christians will understand the message of Christ.

Resurrection and New Life is not just for one time or one group of people. The message of New Life in Christ is for all times and all peoples. This letter is written to us that we might know Jesus’ love. Christ overcame death and so might we!

Resurrection & New Life: The Why Question

My guest blogger today is Rev. Dr. Larry Duane Pickens, Esquire, an Ordained United Methodist Pastor in the Northern Illinois Conference.  He holds degrees in Political Science, Theology, Divinity and law from North Park University, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary (my own alma mater), Bossey (Switzerland), Chicago Theological Seminary, and DePaul University.  Larry has pastored churches in New York and Illinois and led a global agency of the church from 2004-2008.  He is a distinguished pastor, lawyer and United Methodist who has spoken from pulpits and in front of national constituencies.  Please welcome to my blog…a friend and colleague, Larry Pickens!



The Why Question

It is said that if we are to plumb the depth of our lives, we must learn how to ask the why questions. It is the why questions that demonstrate with clarity, I think, the conditions of our souls and the nature of our existence. Perhaps, when we ask the why questions it represents the time in life when we are most honest with ourselves and God. Why questions- “why is there violence and injustice in the world?” “Why do bad things happen to good people?” “Why do the unrighteous prosper?” And the ultimate question, “Why is there suffering and death?”

The resurrection is also grounded in a why question that is posed to both Mary and Mary Magdalene. What is their reason for going to the tomb following Jesus’ death? Perhaps they were still in shock, suffering from some form of past traumatic stress syndrome, which drove them to a tomb with spices designed to ameliorate the smell of a rotting corpse lying in a tomb that was purportedly sealed by a boulder?

I would like to think that it was hope that drew these faithful women to Jesus’ tomb. The hope, inspired by Jesus’ ministry of inclusiveness, carried these women to the tomb in a death defying act of love and faithfulness. The why question that is posed in the tomb. Hope is a stubborn thing that sometimes grows frail but is very hard to kill. It was a stubborn hope that moved these women to the tomb. They became instruments of God’s death defying will represented in Jesus’ victory over the grave.

Diana Butler Bass has recently written a compelling book that is titled “Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.” In an age when we find ourselves trying to repair creaking old church structures, Bass challenges our thinking, calling us to spiritual transformation and resurrection. She is calling us to make all things new for an age that still has its hope grounded in Jesus Christ. She states that we are at a critical stage in a completely new spiritual awakening, a vast interreligious progression toward individual and community transformation. Resurrection in our denominations and our local churches is grounded in the life giving and service driven gospel to which Bass speaks. But such compelling transformation is again grounded in the why questions of our lives.

I hope that you too are asking the why questions. But more so, my hope is that you are walking toward renewal, transformation and yes, resurrection with a stubborn hope.
Amen

Resurrection & New Life: A Good Friday Homily
image found at:  http://poeticmindstate.com/tag/poems/


Rev. Mike Rayson, a United Methodist pastor here in Illinois is giving this homily today at Westminster Abbey in London as a guest preacher.  He has agreed to share his message here as part of my guest blog series on Resurrection and New Life!  (Thanks Mike!)  You can find out more about Mike, his wife, and their ministry by clicking here:  http://stpaulumcbrighton.blogspot.com/


A Good Friday Homily by Rev. Mike Rayson

Grace and peace from the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, our Bishop Gregory Palmer, and from the good people of St Paul’s congregation  in Brighton Illinois, where I am currently appointed to serve together with my wife, the Reverend Amy Rayson, and our children Laura and Oliver.
Since Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, it has become for us the bearer of good news and of bad.  Serving a vibrant and growing congregation means that the phone in my home rings several times each day.  A church member who wants a friendly chat… A troubled soul seeking guidance… A local needing assistance with food… and sometimes news of illness, hospital admission, and even death.
It was the ringing of a phone one Monday morning in May 2007 that brought such news to my family.  I’m sorry… your son, 11 year old Samuel, has been tragically killed.  It was the beginning of a lifelong journey of pain for me, a truly Psalm 23 experience of moving through the valley of the shadow of death. 
They say a clergyperson shouldn’t officiate at the funeral of a family member… but for me, as Sam’s dad, I knew I must.  He was my son, and as I had served him in his life, so to I would serve him in his death. 
The most harrowing and traumatic moment of my whole life happened that day.  Not when I gave the eulogy… led the gathered faithful in prayer… or read from Matthew’s gospel of the one sheep who wandered away… but when I, as pastor and as daddy placed my hands upon the body of my child and recited the words…
Almighty God, into your hands we commend your son, my son, Samuel Thomas William Rayson.  Born March 28th 1996 in Port Lincoln South Australia, died May 14th 2007 in Geneseo, Illinois.  This body we commit to the flames.  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust 
Nothing ever prepares a parent to bear the death of their child.  We use the word widow for one who loses a partner… orphan for those who have lost their parents… yet our English language does not provide a word for a parent who must live and grieve for their child.
Nothing could have prepared Mary, the Mother of Jesus, for this.  No broad shouldered support she received from the disciple John at the foot of the cross could have made the events of that terrible day in Jerusalem any easier to bear, as she watched her son put to death at the hands of a blind regime who wanted to hold fast to their religious power and authority.
In the heat of the afternoon on a hill of shame, a mother watched.  Whilst the world cursed and crucified the babe she had nursed at her breast, a mother grieved.  As the boy who had played at the feet of his mom was tortured and terrorized, scorned and shamed, despised and denied – the light that shone in a mothers proud eyes was extinguished, leaving in its place a wounded and suffering woman.
In the death of Christ, God Almighty embraced everything Mary experienced – the worst that we could ever experience; throwing his arms around our lost-ness, our shame, our sin, our alienation, and our pain… all the while whispering a simple word…
No… No… NO…
For this son of man, sent by God, truly God, came to seek and to save the lost, to embrace the darkness with the light of life… to redeem the tears of a woman whose heart had shattered at the vision of her son’s death.  ‘No’ cried God – this was not how it was meant to be for her, or for us.
In the words of theologian Dr. C Baxter Kruger, “there on the cross, he penetrated the last stronghold of darkness.  There he walked into the utter depths of our alienation.  There the intolerable No!, shouted by God the Father at the Fall of Adam, found its true fulfillment in Jesus’ Yes!  “Father, into Your hands I commend my spirit,” as he took his final step into Adam’s disaster.  Jesus died–and the Fall of Adam died with him”.
As a Dad, grieving for a little boy, my tears have truly fallen… leaning on the arms of her son’s beloved disciple, the tears of Mary, the mother of God must have fallen… and I know your tears too have fallen in the presence of death as you have encountered it.
For it is the thief says Jesus, who comes only to steal and kill and destroy;yet it is in the cross, underscored by what C.S Lewis’ referred to as ‘the deeper magic’, that Jesus has gathered back the tears the thief has stolen from us, and proclaimed that we are made for something beyond than the cold hands of death.  Something more than mere extinction or annihilation.  Something above the hands of time.  We are made for life and life more abundantly.
And so it is we wait… silently, painfully, expectantly… for that Sunday bloom of sheer grace and liberating life to rain again upon our broken and weary souls.  For as sure as the sun will rise on the dawn of tomorrow and as certain as the daffodils bloom each February and March, so death will NOT have the last word. 
Not for Mary, not for me, and most assuredly not for anyone who trusts in the one who died for us all.